The Smart Grid's promise: more reliability, more control

A Smart Grid blends traditional electric-grid functions with intelligent sensors, meters and a fiber optic backbone for quick and secure communication among utility companies, field devices and customers.


Today’s utilities are under pressure to accommodate increasing energy demands under the weight of an aging infrastructure. These challenges come as innovations in technology and alternative energy offer ways to improve efficiency and reduce cost.

From a utility perspective, federal stimulus funding is spurring greater investment in Smart Grid technologies. A Smart Grid blends traditional electric-grid functions with intelligent sensors, meters and a fiber optic backbone for quick and secure communication among utility companies, field devices and customers.

These grid improvements will help ease system inefficiencies, enhance operational visibility and potentially change the way utilities communicate and do business with their customers.

With the adoption of intelligent building principles, the manufacturing facility has new capabilities. An intelligent building, according to the Continental Automated Buildings Association (CABA), uses both technology and process to create a facility that is safer, more productive for its occupants and more operationally efficient for its owners.

Intelligent buildings merge building systems, such as energy usage, HVAC and physical security, into one central IP network for operational ease and efficiency. This article explores energy management as it relates to the relationship between the utility and plant facility today and in the future.

The promise of intelligence

Did you know facility network upgrades can create cost saving opportunities for the industrial sector, which currently consumes 25% of all the energy flowing through the electrical grid?  To take advantage of this, plant managers must learn how smart technology and the evolution of technologies for intelligent buildings can add value to their plant.

As grid improvements come online, the manufacturing industry stands to benefit from increased reliability and greater control. Smart meters communicating with in-building energy application devices provide critical details on how a facility uses energy, enabling plant managers to cut costs by adjusting their energy use based on peak vs. off-peak usage.

Manufacturers can also benefit from improvements in energy transmission and distribution, as strategically placed power management systems can monitor the levels and quality of power moving through the facility and grid. A break in power, for instance, can be quickly identified and the power rerouted through sensors that communicate with the power line and substation. This can help manufacturers avoid costly downtime and operate with continuous power.

The Smart Grid may also help businesses work more sustainably. Upgraded transmission lines are capable of moving power over longer distances, making it easier for utilities to be more efficient and offer renewable energy sources to their customers.

When considering whether to use alternative energy to power your facility, investigate the potential utility incentives offered in your area. This could make your decision a little easier.

Plant engineers have the opportunity to make their facilities more efficient and reduce costs by adopting a strategy that prepares their facilities for Smart Grid implementation.


Overcoming barriers

As with any technology upgrade, barriers to adoption exist, and the cost, time and labor can strain plant resources. With a plan of action, facility managers can identify and overcome many of these obstacles.

The first step is to conduct a site survey to identify inefficiencies, maintenance needs and safety concerns. Facility managers should also use the organization’s energy and cost-saving goals to assess the best opportunities for infrastructure improvement.

Second, facility managers should consider the network architecture needed to support the updated facility infrastructure.  Integrating communications and data technology is a critical consideration for managing and monitoring applications such as lighting, HVAC, security, control and automation.  An IP management platform can help reduce costs today, but more importantly, it can equip the plant with the future capability of communicating with the utility.  This enhances the opportunity to realize additional cost savings and operational efficiencies down the road.

When examining facility operations, some questions to consider include:


·         How can I integrate smart technologies into my existing plant and IT infrastructure?

·         What communication and data infrastructure network is right for the plant?  Fiber optics, wireless, both?

·         What next generation electronics do I need in order to manage and monitor routine communications and data, and mission critical plant applications while communicating with the utility?

·         How can my back-up power sources benefit from smart technologies?

·         How can smart technology benefit systems and devices that are high-energy consumers?

·         Where can I use IP to streamline operations and consolidate systems, such as lighting, security and HVAC?

·         What do I need to consider when integrating broadband, wireless, grid sensors and intelligent processing?

·         Do I have to build new, overbuild or retrofit the facility?

·         How does this impact the interaction between my operations department and my IT department?

·         What training costs should I consider?

·         Which applications are my top priorities?


Technology staples

Monitoring and metering technologies are at the center of a plant infrastructure that can leverage Smart Grid capabilities. These devices are critical for helping facilities maximize energy savings and can often be installed with minimal disruption to plant operations. 

Smart meters, whether wired or wireless, relay detailed information to the utility about energy use and quality. These devices not only help manufacturers track energy use in their plants, but they can also help them verify bill charges.

In some cases, installing smart meters can qualify a facility for utility rebates. Facilities may also be able to negotiate payment agreements, such as fluctuated billing rates based on use during peak and low energy-demand times.

Sensors offer essential technologies for implementing power management in conjunction with the utilities’ Smart Grid strategy. On the outside, sensors help utilities adjust transmission to accommodate peak and low demands. Sensors also monitor the power supply and can prepare a manufacturing facility for electrical breaks or voltage changes.

Helping plants work sustainably

Smart monitoring tools help plant managers pinpoint high-consumption areas where facilities can either reduce energy use or shift usage during low-demand times, when electricity may be less expensive.

Monitoring may also help extend the life of critical equipment by identifying condition changes, such as power factor fluctuations and high generator-operating temperatures.  With better visibility into energy use and operations, plant managers can maximize their equipment capacity and avoid unnecessary purchases.

Other smart technologies on the horizon may allow plant managers to control the facility remotely. For example, some tools may be able to monitor the plant floor and tell the meter to shut off power for equipment that is not in use and divert the energy elsewhere. Similarly, meters may be able to power up high-energy-consuming devices during low-demand times and then switch them off during peak-demand times.  

Today, stimulus funds are driving utilities to modernize their infrastructures. Manufacturers that anticipate the benefits of the Smart Grid may achieve improved energy efficiency and cost savings. Every facility has unique needs and challenges. By working with suppliers, plant engineers can create custom solutions that address energy goals and budgetary requirements.

 As technology evolves, smart technologies will continue to create new opportunities. Prepared industrial facilities will be well poised to gain from the operational enhancements that come from an integrated, Smart Grid.


Scott Jackson is a National Market Manager for Graybar and is responsible for Graybar’s business development and marketing activities in the public utility, service provider, intelligent transportation systems and the alternative/renewable energy markets. Jackson started his career with Graybar in 2006 and has been in the telecommunications industry for more than 12 years.

 Before joining Graybar, Jackson served as Midwest territory manager for Phillips Communications and Equipment Company, comptroller and sales manager for CORE Telecom Systems and as an accountant for Tele/Systems Inventory Management. He is the Technology Committee Chair for the Fiber-to-the-Home Council and member of the Utilities Telecom Council. Jackson received a bachelor’s degree in management from Missouri State University. 

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